New York Times:

Mr. Phalen (paints) still lifes: pomegranates, a knife on a table and outdoor greenery. But the artist takes his subjects as they come: his own face, a dog curled up beside a stained bath tub, an equally grimy sink on its own and, his magnum opus, the bird's eye view of loft buildings in lower Manhattan. Though given to teasing his surfaces as if to make the paint go farther, Mr. Phalen does well with his urban palette of browns, grays and the occasional pearly white. But he is a painter of integrity and when faced with living tissue- a blazing yellow tulip or his own flesh- it is as if he were experiencing an epiphany. This is art about urban life that for some is akin to joining one of the more ascetic religious orders.

- Vivien Raynor



Frye Art Museum from the Exhibition Catalog:

Jim Phalen Undercurrents of the Commonplace.


For all the apparent simplicity of his subject matter- the sheen of silvery fish arranged on a wooden table, the dark door that frames creamy walls in the artist's studio, a lazy dog outstretched by a food dish, a young boy standing quietly by a old chair- Jim Phalen's imagery is charged with a psychological intensity. An assiduous student of nature, Phalen explains, "I want to be relentless and probing, to interrogate and to have the specificity of the subject speak clearly. I am drawn to subjects that possess a curiously charged banality, being both ordinary and evocative simultaneously. I feel that life's most important moments lie not in grand events but with those times in-between."

Introspective and profoundly earnest, Phalen constructs sophisticated and deliberate expressions of his immediate world which place him in a distinguished lineage of twentieth-century artists, including John Sloan (1871-1972), Fairfield Porter (1907-1975), and Andrew Wyeth (b. 1917). Chief characteristics of this American heritage are an unusual directness and clarity of vision, coupled with individualistic interpretations of life rooted in experience and a sensibility for the transcendent. All accomplished draftsmen, the works of these artists maintain a conservative fealty to European art of the past along with a progressive loyalty to their contemporary environments. As John Sloan's Blue Kimono (1913) recasts Edward Mante's Olympia (1863) into an American idiom so too Phalen's Salmon, Frozen (1997) recall Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin's Ray Fish (1728). Both still lifes are stark, and even shocking, with the shadowy chiaroscuro and spare, dragged, and scumbled paint depicting a gutted fish laid out among kitchen utensils. Phalen's picture, however, further reflects daily life in the Pacific Northwest where the salmon industry is an economic cornerstone. A roll-up-the-shirtsleeves quality underpins Phalen's more austere rendering, which is also indicative of the frontier identity that has defined much in the culture of this region. Compelling because it hints at the alternative realities to the one made visible, the table set for one in Salmon Frozen subtly conveys notions of solitude, life, and death.

The importance of emotion in Phalen's work is evident in the poignant but restrained Gregory's Ball (2000). Avoiding a sentimentality that is too often associated with scenes that represent childhood, Phalen's language of imagination is revealed through delicate texture, evanescent light, and warm shadow. The deceptively simple facts of a sun-lit floor, red ball, menacing electrical chord, worn out mat, and dark doorway are transfigured without being violated. Like Andrew Wyeth's ascetic interiors, Phalen captures the very essence of the human condition by offering an empty room where we can discover our own ghosts.

Exhibiting a principled discretion in his portraits of family and friends, Phalen maintains a commitment to objectivity even while pursuing a psychological penetration of the inner life of his subjects. Poised and powerful yet vulnerable and exposed, Phalen's portrayals of his wife, Ellen, share an affinity with Fairfield Porter's depictions of his wife, Anne. Phalen and Porter both invest a sensuous and painterly touch to soften the uneasy confrontation between viewer and figure. Isolated in a moment of contemplation, these likenesses seem to demand an accommodation of the noble in the mundane aspects of everyday existance.

In Phalen's sculptures, one discerns the same degree of deep attachment to the values that sustain his two dimensional works- a conviction and a fidelity to communicate to the rest of us what he perceives as meaningful, truthful and significant in the world. Earthy, life-sized, terra cotta forms meet the viewer's gaze from a coarse framework that holds together the sober fragments of body. Physical absences and losses seem to enrich the sense of wholeness and depth in the character of the figures. This is in keeping for this artist who possesses an abiding faith in his means of mastering the visual field and rendering it transparent in order to create an art full of transcendent moments.

Phalen's seriousness of purpose and command of the materials are matched within the context of his realist ethic. Reflections on family, friendship, beauty, joy, solitude, and death are expressed with sheer skill of craftsmanship. The artist has perfected a refined application of solid, textured paint; analytical renderings of surfaces and objects; gentle, deliberate movements and gestures of figures; a concentration on light and shadow; and the ability to confer a dignity and electricity to the ordinary. The integrity of his approach to setting and subject invest the forms of the commonplace with strong undercurrents of life and feeling.

- Debra J. Byrne, Director of Curatorial Affairs and Exhibitions



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Southwest Art Magazine:


Jim Phalen strives to paint the still life with such authenticity that he records the true experience of a random encounter with the object. His convictions about working from life are so strong that he refuses to rearrange or organize his subjects spatially.

By turning his back on such common techniques, he voices a passive critique of popular culture and fashionable movements in the art world. "I'm sort of suspicious of good design," Phalen, who lives is Washington, says. "The American culture is bombarded with commercial imagery and advertising and it's all incredibly well designed. I put objects on a table in a way that is intuitive, and that's typically the way I leave them." A dirty table, for instance, is not designed - it results by happenstance through interaction with the object. Phalen's quest is to capture the kind of uncontrived authenticity.

"Painting in the truest sense is a record of the act of looking," he says. In early experiments with still lifes, he selected random subjects. He found, though, that he preferred to paint objects that had colors and textures to which he intuitively responded and found compelling on a psychological level. Phalen often finds subject matter, such as whole fish, at the grocery store. Frequently, his subjects relate to the human relationship to nature - specifically, the "commodification of the buying and selling of nature," he says. He believes his paintings, if rendered with care and sincerity of detail, will engender some empathy with the subject.

- Lynn Payne Davis



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